Thursday, 31 May 2012

Autism Research - What's the point?

I recently attended a series of lectures and workshops centred on determining effective interventions when working with people on the autism spectrum. The initial lecture by a noteworthy expert in the field was about evaluating research and I half expected a Ben Goldacre style run through of statistical interpretation, double-blinding and controls. Instead the primary messages were that we should acknowledge the experiences of the individual and that “a lack of evidence of effect is not evidence of a lack of effect”.  As a theology graduate I’m aware of this latter argument in relation to the existence of a deity, but I was disappointed to hear it in the context of a lecture hall of practitioners studying to improve their knowledge. Was she saying that even if the research on the intervention shows no efficacy that we should consider it anyway, and if so why should this be?

There are some major problems in autism research. I’m sure that many of these are replicated for other conditions and are merely the result of poor design, but some are caused by the particular nature of autism. As explained in a previous post, autism is a broad spectrum and just putting out a call for test subjects that are autistic will return a wide range of variations on the theme. This is difficult to control for without careful individual profiling. If you perform in-depth profiling for selection your choice has then been narrowed and getting access to large enough samples of similar subjects can present yet another hurdle . This whole situation might become even more problematic with the proposed changes in DSM-V which will further group a wider variety of developmental disorders under the label of “autism” making distinction increasingly complex.

This isn’t news of course and the National Autistic Society in the UK have established Research Autism to address some of these issues, promote good quality research and evaluate that which is already out there. They have a useful page on ways that research can go wrong and they also have a fairly comprehensive list of available therapies and treatments with an accompanying rating system based on the quality of the research in place to support them. They say that this isn’t a recommendation guide but it makes very interesting reading nonetheless.

The range of treatments and approaches on offer is vast and includes medication, psychological, physiological, behavioural, diets and supplements, communication enhancement and many more. The full alphabetical list of everything that Research Autism can find that has been used in this arena currently stands at a total of 962 different variations of possible treatments. Most of us would find it impossible to work through even a small portion of these, analyse the research and draw conclusions as to the most likely to be effective. They can’t do the lot either, but they can start at the main ones and it’s good that they do.

Over in America the largest autism advocacy group by far is Autism Speaks. You can see that it too is involved in supporting many scientific trials; however its list of “not actually recommended” treatments is much shorter and less specific. They seem to have narrowed it down to the ones that they feel are safest and, you would think, most effective. The organisation is a strong advocate of the Applied Behavioural Approach (ABA) which is now pretty much an umbrella term for a variety of behaviourist techniques such as the Lovaas Approach. It’s a popular and well used system with a lot of research behind it and good evidence for efficacy with some people. ABA is not without its critics though as some reject its overt behaviourism as imposing neurotypical expectations onto the individual with autism. Also given the diverse nature of autism it won’t work for everyone.

Better advice on the day came from a different speaker who told us that much of the research was pretty poor so we had to be critical of what we read and should look at all the factors to determine if a study was any good. She then advised that as the spectrum was so wide that no one approach is likely to work with everybody and as practitioners we should be tooled up with a selection of methods that we can use in our work. This seemed both practical and logical.

As ever most of the terminology in this field has negative connotations. Treatment implies an illness or disease, intervention that somebody is doing something wrong. It is difficult to leave the language of autism as a deficit behind and easy to dismiss concern about this as political correctness gone mad. Language is important and can both betray and influence opinion. An interesting blog to read on this subject is Michelle Dawson’s Autism in Crisis who challenges many aspects of the research and conclusions drawn around Autism.

The weakness in much of the research, absence of definitive cause and the lack of a universal palliative leaves the door open for all kinds of therapies to push themselves forward, and push they do. The door is kindly wedged ajar by advice such as that from Autism Speaks on their Complementary and Alternative Approaches for Autism page. Whilst being very careful to emphasise that CAM therapies are not thoroughly researched and should not replace standard medicine it does give the impression that they shouldn’t be totally discounted due to lack of evidence of efficacy. It then helpfully lists a number of pilot and small scale studies that it says show some promise. I’m not accusing them of wholeheartedly endorsing quackery but if falls far short of offering any substantial warning about some of the more dubious remedies that are on offer and lends, at the least, tacit approval to those it lists. It’s only my opinion but this fails in terms of what you would expect from a major resource that for many people is the first port of call for information and advice.

It can be uncomfortable, challenging the beliefs of parents and carers who are emotionally invested in their children. Or even disputing with adults themselves that are on the spectrum and wholeheartedly believe that their “recovery” is due to some miracle cure beyond the comprehension of science or hidden by Big Pharma. I’m not even saying that we should discount personal experience as in itself it can be an important launch for some new advance. If promising it could lead to a small scale study that might provoke more interest. This could then lead to a better designed trial and so on until we have some solid evidence of efficacy or not and we can then make a rational decision on how to progress. That would be wonderful wouldn’t it? However if we now apply our initial mantra that a lack of evidence of efficacy is not evidence of a lack of efficacy and that we should pay great heed to personal experience then what is the point of any of it?

Personal experience and peer support is extremely valuable but it needs to be moderated in respect to treatments and interventions. Guidance and education on how to evaluate claims is often missing from much of the literature and many of the support groups that proliferate the Internet. In the next post we will look at some of the so-called cures on offer and the ideas behind them.

This blog post was written by Patrick Redmond (@paddyrex)

Monday, 28 May 2012

The Round-up w/e 27/05/2012

Hello and welcome to the reasonably regular round-up of sometimes scintillating, sometimes silly stories of science and skepticism. Right, that’s my alliteration quota fulfilled and I can get on with the post now. The following round-up is made up of links provided by myself and the Skeptical Surfer aka Roy Beddowes. I’ll leave it to you to guess which belong to whom. (Hint, mine are the better ones obviously.)

Which of you came to Peter Harrison’s talk on Lucid Dreaming? If you missed it look out for him at other skeptic groups. Here’s a report on a device that purports to provide help for all you budding oneironauts.

“Buttocks Humanoid that Represents Emotions with Visual and Tactual Transformation of the Muscles” – Is that enough to get you clicking?

Thou shalt not fit a smoke alarm, apparently.

A wonderful visual effect next with a naturally enhanced capture of a solar eclipse.

Superheroes are coming out of the closet followed by the ever so predictable protests.

Advocates for gay cures have even less credibility as Dr Spitzer says, “Sorry”.

Brainpickings provides us with a reminder from Carl Sagan about the balance between skepticism and openness. I think for any fan of Sagan it’s nearly impossible to read the bit in quotation marks without hearing his voice.

Here’s a review of a fascinating new book by Rebecca Stott called Darwin’s Ghosts. Wouldn’t it be a massive coincidence if she just happened to be the speaker at our August event?

Ever wondered just how much water there is on, in and above the Earth?

Cryptozoology next as a team of scientists turns their genetic code busting talents to the search for the Yeti.

New SitP on the block Kingston Skeptics sent me a polite message via Twitter this week, pointing out that for the last two years the word atheist had been misspelt in my profile! Cheers guys. Thankfully Martin S Pribble didn’t make the same mistake in this post, Fear ofAtheism.

My lack of proof reading skills were evident again in our recent debut newsletter where I failed to spot that the date of the Skeptics in the Pub Quiz was wrong. The actual date is the 19th of July and you can sign up for the newsletter in the embedded form top right of this page.

Scourge of quacks everywhere, Edzard Ernst, wrote in the Guardian about the legal standing of Alt Med.

I shouldn’t think there are many of you reading this that need persuading that vaccinations are a good thing. But just in case why not have a read of Skeptical Raptoron whooping cough?

Were you aware that some psychics are frauds, I know, shocking isn’t it? Here’s a handy guide to spotting the fakes from Exploring Psychics. They should know after all, as they offer to put you in touch with a genuine one, nice.

Our next Skeptics in the Pub event is Colin Wright with the Mathematics ofJuggling on June 13th. We’ve got loads of great events lined up for the whole year so make sure you sign up for the newsletter, ‘like’ our Facebook page, follow us on Twitter or just lurk outside our houses in the early hours of the morning to keep up with all that’s happening.

Thanks to a tip off on Twitter I managed to watch some of this next video live. The docking of the private sector company SpaceX's capsule with the International Space Station is not just a triumph of engineering and science it's another watershed moment in the history of space exploration.

This weeks round-up was put together by Patrick Redmond (@paddyrex) with help from sitp regular Roy Beddowes.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Gish Gallop’s Gladly, Glibly Gestated Gullibility

One of my greatest pleasures is the discovery that I’m wrong. It’s a liberating experience, a reminder that knowledge is both a motorway and a cul de sac. Tolkien said, ‘the road goes ever on and on’. For me, the road is discovery. Certainty is a dead end.

Jelly babies are what I miss most as about being vegetarian. There are no meat free alternatives that give the flavour and texture that I once enjoyed whilst pondering which colour to eat first, whether to decapitate or amputate its legs. See me lingering by supermarket sweets: it’s a safe bet that I’m reading ingredients to see if beef gelatine has been replaced by a viable alternative. Many would suggest that I stop being a veggie.  In some ways they’re right: there are sound moral reasons to eat meat.

How does this connect to the Gish Gallop? Why do I accuse its proponents of being gladly glib?  In what manner does it gestate gullibility?

Born in 1921, the eponymous Professor Duane Gish is the youngest of nine children and was a biochemist. I’m not touching on his opinions as it’s enough to say that Gish has an entertaining internet presence. Nor am I accusing him of dishonesty or insincerity; merely criticising his dubious debating strategy that is honed for ignorant propaganda instead of promoting education. This arrogant method claims certainty, thereby undermining its own assertions.

The best debates are both entertaining and educational opportunities for the audience to learn about the subject and scrutinise skilfully developed thoughtful arguments.

The arena of a formal debate has a statement that is ‘proposed’ by one side and ‘opposed’ by the other. A poll may be taken to establish any polarity of opinion before discussions begin. Within a predetermined time limit, each participant has opportunity to put their case forward. A shorter period is allowed for responses or expanded arguments. Often there will be audience questions before a vote is taken. This determines who wins the debate.

At school, I learnt that a good debater would be competent at presenting either side of the proposal. I could present either view with the proposal ‘Vegetarianism is the only moral choice,’ despite not being persuaded by it.

In putting my argument forward, I’d define vegetarian, moral and diet, then explain any premise of my standpoint and present a small number of facts or examples from which my conclusions follow. I’d expect, or hope, that my opponent would demonstrate similar deference to the subject and our audience whilst being vigorous and honest in their presentation. Neither of us would obfuscate.

There are a number of ways in which I could show contempt for, or distrust of my audience. One underhand game plan would be that for which Duane Gish is famed, a cowardly method because it distorts the lens of scrutiny that is the event’s purpose.

Professor Gish is famed for his rapid fire technique. In quick succession he’ll list twenty, thirty, sometimes forty or more assertions and misrepresented facts. An example within the vegetarian sphere might be: “what about veal calves, foie gras, dairy cattle, abattoirs, animal executions by bleeding, battery farmed chickens, murder of male chicks, rings through bulls’ noses, decalcified bones, branding of cattle, slavery of farm animals, murder of dolphins, depletion of fish stocks, extinction of ancient breeds, cruelty of halal and kosher foods, selective breeding creating deformities, the second law of thermodynamics, overcrowded pastures , increased cases of measles, genetic engineering, forced breeding, fox hunting, badger baiting, grouse shooting, fur trade, poaching, angling, loss of the Gaul, obese youngsters, big pharma, skinny models”. This is a Gish Gallop that consumes less than a minute to utter yet such a rant undermines the purpose of a debate.

Can you count, let alone give a considered response to, all the points within that diatribe? I counted thirty one and, despite being its author, would be challenged to respond.

Several items on the list scream out for clarification of their meaning or relevance to the topic. The second law of thermodynamics refers to increasing disorder within ‘closed systems’ more commonly known as entropy.   In the context of the proposal, it’s a colourless herring, included only so that its stench can befuddle the opponent and, more disappointingly, misdirect or confuse the audience. There are at least two layers of ignorance in such a method: the Galloper’s lack of knowledge and its implicit rudeness.

Consider how you would craft a courteous response to such a rant. Even if you’d prepared for, or had prior understanding of, each point much of your time would be consumed by addressing them all in a robust manner.   The Gallop’s capacity to snare or trip an opponent is something the wise debater will be ready for, but I’ll explain why I describe the Gish Gallop as ‘gladly glib’, first.

If I talk with you about jelly babies, you’ll sacrifice my respect if you go into a Gish Gallop.

Is it a cliché to observe that the person pointing one finger has three others directed back at them?

The Gish Gallop aims to drown the opponents’ presentation or argument in a ‘perfect storm’.   It’s a theatrical device applied to intellectual endeavour. To avoid being exposed and the Galloper's case floundering, its forceful delivery is crucial. Therefore the Galloper often calls on their charisma or stage presence to perform the role of contented satisfaction in their arguments. They imply their opponent is ill-equipped, under-prepared or otherwise beyond hope of winning the day.

This is why we see the ‘Gish Gallop Gladly, Glibly’ presented to the audience. Let us not mistake it for anything other than the mask it is. If the Galloper’s case were of any substance this intellectually redundant device would not be in their arsenal.

The last element of my title is a bold claim. I’m contesting that those who are duped into credulity for the Galloper’s argument will be misinformed.

My reasoning is that accepting a flawed method of critical thinking will inevitably undermine competency in other spheres where a clear mind is necessary. There are a number of arenas in which the Gish Gallop is used as a marketing tool. Astrology, for example, is wholly disconnected from the disciplines our species needs to cross the road, negotiate a peace or design space craft explorations. Similarly, advertising that includes statutory claims proceeds to undermine reason with clouded arguments or misrepresented facts. How often do we see products eulogised by photoshopped beauties above small-print disclaimers beginning ‘seventeen out of nineteen women’?

When we allow the Gish Gallop to go unchallenged, un-exposed, we are degrading our own capacity to evaluate, we have ‘Gestated Gullibility.’

Just as you and I would respond with anger if someone tipped rubbish on our living room carpet, we would be wise to contest those who’d deliver trash into the only place where we can, and do, truly exist: our brains.

We travel through life on the wide, illuminated motorway of our thoughts. It’s here that we experience everything; all our pleasures and sorrows, expectations: positive and otherwise. Why would we drive ourselves into the narrow cul de sac of arrogant certainty that won’t allow itself reasoned enquiry?

Whether the Gish Gallop is used by ignorance, incompetence or malice, any assertions that we accept as a result may gestate into broader gullibility that constricts. More importantly we risk such buffoonery stifling the minds of those we care for or rely upon: our loved ones, oncologists, statesmen, national treasures like the polymath Stephen Fry.

The Gish Gallop is a tool for those who claim certainty against evidence, seek community in ignorance and shut their minds to the beauty of reality.

The Gish Gallop is the sign at the end of the cul de sac.

One question remains. How do I respond to the Gish Gallop?

There was a debate at Birmingham University. Both speakers were courteous and seemingly well informed: not least because such events are part of their professional roles.

I went because I like to gain new insights into views I don’t share. It’s uplifting. Quickly, it was apparent that a Galloper was in the room. It’s hard to find intellectual substance amidst diatribe, so I learnt far less than I would if he’d argued without such posturing.

Later, I contacted the Galloper to be told ‘you don’t understand’. Where was his concern for the audience’s welfare? Why was he taking part if he didn’t want to share or expand understanding? It’s his job to explain!

I respond to the Gish Gallop, especially when ridden in public, with enquiry: forthright, clear and confrontational if necessary.   The only time I don’t expose is if I’m with someone who’d be embarrassed. I see myself as duty bound to challenge the Galloper in the same way as I confront litter bugs, vandals, smokers and other thugs.

I choose to ask the question: ‘what do you believe and why?’ Sadly, the Galloper rarely responds with courtesy, data, explanation or understanding.

This blog post was contributed by Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub regular Rich Wiltshir (@richwiltshir)

Saturday, 19 May 2012

The Round-up w/e 20/05/12

It’s time for your dose of weekend wonderousness that is the Sitp Weekly Round-up. A healthy tonic of web trawling guaranteed to make you feel better all over. Come closer to the screen; let the skepti-chi-10C- ions flow through. Wasn’t it Marvin Gaye who sang “and when I get that feeling I want skeptical healing” - maybe? Here’s this week’s prescription to “ease your mind”.

Suffer from arachnophobia? Then don’t open this link. In fact, don’t go out alone either; well, not unless you’re armed with a rolled up newspaper or a big slipper, because, apparently, some spiders hunt in packs.

Atheism, according to a new study, is very much alive and well in the eastern part of Germany.

With Colin Wright coming to visit us next month, I thought I’d whet your appetite with a spot of joggling (juggling whilst jogging). However, that activity pales slightly when compared to this story, where Joe Salter takes his ball tossing obsession beyond the running track.

I don’t know, last week we paid a visit to the land of Jurassic parps with dinosaur gas, this week it’s human caused lunarmethane and a sweary John Young aboard Apollo 16. Well, at least I’ve expanded my vocabulary along the way. Odiferous and dutch-ovening  - brilliant!

Our October speaker, Alice Roberts, has been to Buck House to look at the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and finds plenty to be impressed with. Alice is the new Professor of Public Engagement in Science  at Birmingham University, which is just a stone’s throw from our Victoria venue; so, whilst not strictly living next door to, we’re within a reasonable walking distance – to Alice.

Some outstanding local news came our way this week: Scientists at Aston University have identified a new mechanism responsible for regulating the flow of water into and out of cells which will improve our understanding of how the body deals with different conditions. The research has been selected for the Faculty of 1000 Library as a ‘must read’ which recognises work considered to be in the top two per cent of published articles in biology and medicine.

Water here, water there, water ruddy everywhere lately: Dr Brian Hughes at The Science Bit examines the widespread claims that taking water into exams improves cognitive acuity , whilst over at the Science or Not Blog there’s a report onanti-vaxxer Meryl Dorey where she describes Homeopathy as ‘energy medicine’ like ‘quantum medicine, whatever that is. Check out this song dedicated to Meryl's expertise ; there’s no beginning to her talents.

Here’s a couple of awesome Space Shuttle videos to challenge your sensory receptors, one for your ears (exercise caution with that sub-woofer), and one for your eyes (click on the HD option for a thrill ride up to 3000mph, and down again).

Star Wars creature designer Terry Whitlach (Jar-Jar Binks...blergh!) wondered what superheroes would look like as dinosaurs. No. Wait. Don’t go. It’s all good.

A brief pause here for a musical interlude: Richard Feynman on bongos.

Horrible Histories, the BBC television series for children, has come up with this catchy spoof on a popular 1970’s David Bowie song  as a way of communicating Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection to a younger audience.

Following on from Patrick’s excellent article on autism, New Scientist reports on an automated system  based around Microsoft’s Kinect camera that keeps watch over children which could potentially spot the tell-tale signs of autism and lead to earlier diagnoses.

We’ve not had a video from the excellent Qualia Soup for a while.  Let’s rectify this terrible oversight immediately: The Burden of Proof.

The draft version of the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM 5, the psychiatric ‘bible’ that defines the revised criteria for diagnosing mental illness, has finally been published: The folks over at Mind Hacks review the changes.

These have to be my two favourite stories this week. Is there an echo in here?

·         Skechers will pay $40 million to settle FTC charges that it deceived consumers with ads for "Toning Shoes".

·         Reebok to pay $25 Million in customer refunds to settle FTC charges of deceptive advertising of EasyTone and RunTone Shoes.

Well this link is cool for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s a throw with a moon-surface print, and who wouldn’t want one of those? (IWOOT) The second is that it comes via Jerry Ryan, Star Trek Voyager’s resident Borg, Seven of Nine. Nice. There’s also a big moon cushion too if you want to go for the full lunar landscape effect. Yes, okay, Phil Plait’s pretty cool too (The Bad Astronomer)   - so three reasons then!

Courtesy of Reuben Bolling at Tom the Dancing Bug web comics: Charley the Australopithecine.

Looking for an interesting read with the word skeptic in the title? Try this: Massimo Pigliucci at the Rationally Speaking Blog - In defense of criticism (and skepticism).

How do we consume our news? : Using data from URL shortener Bitly, this (interesting/depressing/disturbing) news map shows above-average clicks for each of the major UK news websites and where those clicks happened.

Highly recommended viewing and reading: Jerry Coyne has written a piece on the correlation between religiosity and well-being among US states. It’s very good, and choc full with maps and charts and things. Additionally, if you enjoy watching a good lecture, click through for Jerry’s entertaining talk “Why Evolution is True” given at Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Relive, once again, that magical moment in Jurassic Park when they first see the herding dinosaurs. I’m filling up here.

More wind I’m afraid, and, unfortunately, the final link for this week’s Round-up: Visitors to the Tadeo Cern studio were invited to participate in an unprecedented photo session where a strong current of air was blasted into their faces creating some funny facial expressions.

Let’s not forget to mention our forthcoming events, podcasts, dvds  and quiz. You can also sign up for our new newsletter. Come along, download, buy; participate.

Have a great week.

This week’s Round-up was compiled by SitP regular Roy Beddowes (pictured above).

Brum Skeptics Newsletter

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The newsletter should come out once a month, so there is no need to fear your inbox being spammed to death and it is hopefully more readable and enjoyable than the previous incarnation. If you know anybody that might be interested in signing up then send them the link below or just forward the newsletter on to them when you get it:

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Monday, 14 May 2012

Autism - What's in a name?

Autism is categorised as a developmental disorder and there are many misconceptions about what it means to be on the autism spectrum. Recent years have seen an increase in diagnoses and with it increased coverage in popular media as well as the news. Realistically the two probably feed each other as a greater awareness begets more requests for diagnosis. The question of whether the actual rate of incidence is growing is, like most areas in this subject, contentious. Despite what some groups would claim, that vaccinations, pollution or whatever is causing an epidemic of autism, there is evidence that shows a consistent level of incidence throughout the population for all age groups indicating no actual rise in the frequency of occurrence. As ever better research is required but even then the matter would probably not rest as opinion is often formed more by agenda than evidence.

For many people their perception of a person on the spectrum is a rocking Dustin Hoffman type figure reciting names memorised from a telephone directory, somebody that can read two books simultaneously or perform some other incredible feat of mental gymnastics. But autism is a spectrum and viewers of the recent Louis Theroux documentary will have seen that there are apparently vast differences between those with nominally the same diagnosis. Although popular film and literary depictions of people with autism concentrate on those with good cognitive functioning, a huge proportion never achieves verbal communication and many struggle with interaction and communication at all.

Despite much research around genetic and neurological indicators to determine the aetiology of autism, diagnosis is still based upon observations and interviews around a triad of impairments. I use the word impairment with some caution as it is a loaded term and one rejected by many in the autistic community, but it is the diagnostic terminology used. The main set of criteria used in the UK is outlined in the 10th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10). There is also the hugely influential American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual currently in its 4th revision (DSM-IV), although the 5th (DSM-V) is being field tested, about which later.

There are some differences between these systems but they both agree that to obtain a diagnosis of an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) the person must show impairment of social interaction, communication and some form of restrictive behaviour.  An associated but much debated diagnosis is Asperger’s syndrome. There is a range of other Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD) some classified as being Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). Autism is the best know PDD and there is still debate as to whether Asperger’s is a separate condition or part of autism. The main defining factor between high functioning autism and those diagnosed with Asperger’s is that there was no apparent early delay in the development of communication for the latter.

Being diagnosed or having a loved one diagnosed with any condition can be an incredibly emotive event. For those of us that presently have no form of disability it is difficult to understand what it can mean. Labels have power and in a society that largely misunderstands disability there can be a misplaced feeling of stigma or shame. This negative attribution needs to be countered not just with autism but for all forms of disability. However that’s not the thrust of this post.

A label can also bring understanding, comfort and help. I know people that excelled academically but never fitted in or made friends at university or in general society. Their feeling of isolation, confusion and inability to interact led to depression and unhappiness. When they later received their diagnosis it helped them to begin to make sense of themselves. It didn’t remove all the barriers but now they knew they weren’t just odd, or freaks, there was a reason.

Having a diagnosis also has practical implications. It can open doors in terms of assistance and funding, particularly for younger people on the spectrum. Services for adults are less well defined but for young and old the support is often essential. Budgets for this section of society are constantly under threat as local authorities struggle to meet financial targets. You can therefore understand the nervousness of many within the autistic community with the proposed changes to the diagnostic criteria of autism in the upcoming DSM-V.

The new criteria are more specific in some ways and pull together a range of previously separate PDDs which become subsumed under the category of ASD. The separate label of Asperger’s would no longer exist and they would now also come under the definition of ASD as long as they met the required criteria. The three previous areas of impairment become two, with social interaction and communication being combined. This is a move that for many makes good sense and the new criteria also takes into account more the sensory nature of the condition and provides benchmarks for determining the “severity” of the autism.

There are several concerns by different groups and individuals about the proposed changes. One is that the revised demand to demonstrate a more specific level of restriction in behaviour could cut out many borderline cases and deprive them of the diagnosis. Some studies claim that a significant number currently meeting the DSM-IV demands would not do so under DSM-V. This doesn’t mean that their needs will no longer exist, but will it mean that they will no longer be eligible for resources that authorities have earmarked for those with the label of autistic? There is no easy answer to this and the debate between professionals on all sides and those in the autistic community continues. It’s doubtful that those currently receiving assistance would suddenly lose it, but perhaps some that needed it in the future would not be able to access it.

Others are concerned that the section outlining severity levels is too generalised and misleading. That there is a mismatch between the diagnostic levels and the severity levels that could lead to expectations of support that isn’t there or a pressure for funding bodies to push for lower levels of diagnosis in order to reduce future costs of support.

Another interesting question is how the loss of a label would affect those who see their autism as part of their identity. There is a growing and thriving community of people on the spectrum. Spend any amount of time on a forum such as Aspies Central and you will find an amazing range of people and experiences focussed around this shared identity. Asperger’s for many is more than a label or diagnosis; it is part of their personality, part of their very essence.

The autism community reminds me in many ways of the Deaf community. I've spoken with Deaf people that would prefer their child to be born deaf as it would be fully part of that community. I’ve only come across a few people with this view and other Deaf people I’ve spoken to believe that hearing or deaf, their child will be part of the community. Generally they are against prenatal screening for deafness as they don’t see the point. If people chose not to have or were prevented from having deaf children, their community, language and culture would be depleted. Deafness for them is not a disability.

The question of the heritability of autism is extremely complicated with no single gene mutation being responsible and a range of environmental factors possibly contributing to the individual’s atypical development. But if we could wipe out autism what would we lose? At a lecture I attended a scientist, who is herself on the autism spectrum, proposed that if we were able to eradicate autism we would lose no end of wonderful engineers, scientists and people who can think creatively. It’s an idea I first came across years ago in one of Asimov’s short stories called “Light Verse” where a malfunction in the wiring of a robot imbued it with the skill to create wonderful light sculptures that it lost upon repair. I’m not denying the difficulty that the condition causes many individuals and their loved ones, but I am saying that there are interesting ethical and philosophical considerations.

Before I wander too far from the point I’ll summarise. The diagnosis of autism is to a degree subjective, based on the application of criteria that are themselves being redefined. The Autism Spectrum is very broad and the people on there are individuals with ability profiles that peak and trough in varying places and to varying degrees. Just knowing that somebody has that diagnosis tells you very little about them beyond the broadest of strokes; you need to know the person.

How ever you define autism there is a whole range of interventions that purport to help with the problems faced by people on the spectrum. You would hope that research would help to determine the most effective of these but is this the case? We’ll have a look at this question in the next post.

This blog post was written by Patrick Redmond (@paddyrex) one of the organisers of Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub

Saturday, 12 May 2012

The Round-up w/e 13/05/2012

It’s not square and it’s not down. Yes, it’s the corniest ever opening to the Birmingham Skeptics’ Round-up yet and that took some doing believe me.

Remember Paul the Psychic Octopus who had the uncanny ability to randomly pick one thing out of a choice of two things? Well he’s not the only cephalopod to help with predictions, except this one’s a bit more science based.

I’m doing a charity walk tomorrow and I’ve been blown away by the support from my skeptic friends in raising money. It seems they might also be the people to go to for more fleshy donations too.

I loved this next one. I’ve seen live tweeting from a court room, a television show, all good but an operating theatre during brain surgery! Fantastic

A sad moment here, the Righteous Indignation Podcast is no more. Those that brought it to us are busy people and have other projects and priorities to occupy them. If you’ve never heard this great skeptical podcast or you would like to relisten, you can find all of the episodes by following the link on the page

Just in case you thought that the Catholics were the only religious group with a tendency to cover for child abuse, some worrying reports from the world of the ultra-orthodox Jews.

I’ve read lots of bizarre articles about alternative medicine, but I really don’t know what to say about human flesh pills

I’ve watched this video of footage from the Cassini and  Voyager missions several times now and it’s been goosebumps every time. Watch it, please, it’s incredible.

The Eye of Horus was a symbol of protection, power and health for the Ancient Egyptians and is now a tattoo on the back of Robbie Williams’ neck.  This may or may not qualify as proof against efficacy, but powerful or not it is actually a cool little maths problem.

I think they may have missed some sound effects out in Jurassic Park, according to this article those sauropods were pumping out some serious gas.

I love this, your computer is more likely to pick up an infection from a religious site than a porn site.

If you like your sin to be a bit more original, there’s an interesting article here about it with an account of debate between Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell.

We had the inimitable Robin Ince at Birmingham Skeptics this week and he was awesome. It’s no secret that one of his heroes is Richard Fenyman and it happens that he would have been 94 last Friday. Happy Birthday Mr Fenyman!

Next we have an extremely thorough post by Zeno and Sven Rudloff on the Swiss government’s support of homeopathy.

We’ve got lots of goodies coming up at Birmingham Skeptics. There’s our May Social, the very exciting prospect of Colin Wright and our first ever Skeptics  in the Pub Quiz. So much to look forward too and hopefully some of you will be able to make it along.

After watching last week’s video of the kung fu robots (and far too many science fiction films) I thought we’d better have a lesson on how to Survive A Robot Uprising. See you all soon.

This round-up was compiled by Patrick Redmond (@paddyrex) with the help of the indomitable Roy Beddowes.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Robin Ince at Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub 9/05/2012

I did originally think about just writing the word “Brilliant!” and leaving it at that. It would have been accurate and concise, but it wouldn’t have done justice to the evening. Robin was like a man possessed, in fact at one point I’m sure he was channelling dead physicists and not so dead Northampton based comic writers. He had with him a few battered texts and a selection of postcards upon which were written varied thoughts, scraps of words and quotes. For the first half of the night he worked his way through some of these in an almost frenetic form of free association as the ideas trapped by the ink sparked a chain reaction of thoughts that branched into new avenues of humour.

At one point he commented on the length of time he’d been talking and I honestly hadn’t noticed. It didn’t seem that he actually wanted to go into the traditional sitp interval that is followed by the obligatory question and answer session. This was confirmed by the fact that once back on stage he then asked and answered all his own questions as, with a fantastic disregard to expectation, he carried on working through his cards. Nobody, I am certain, minded and he picked up the pace as if he’d never stopped with energy levels that  would make Cern envious.

This wasn’t just a comedy gig; I wouldn’t even call it a routine as I bet he’d be hard pressed to replicate it too closely. It was science communication at its best. Not in the sense that he gave us a load of information, although there was a lot of that there, but in the sheer contagious nature of his wonder at the world about him. He portrays and invokes that astonishment that you see in the young, that we all had before some of us allowed the apparent monotony of life to blind us to the actual marvels of existence. Amongst the laughs and humour there was a challenge in his talk, at least for me. See that dog turd I just stepped in, it’s the result of millions of years of evolution, a few hours of chemical and biological processes and a moment’s distraction, staring up at the stars.

I’ve seen Robin a few times before, listened to many podcasts and read his tweets. I even interviewed him briefly for a podcast. It’s an easy mistake for the fan to begin to think they know a person from the bits of themselves that they make accessible through media, social or otherwise. I wouldn’t pretend to know Robin but he was a pleasure to host, easy going, humble and happy to mix in with the crowd and chat until the bar closed. I don’t think that he could have given any more of himself. All this for no more payment than a veggie burger, a few beers and a room in a less than salubrious hotel at the back of New St Station. “Brilliant” doesn’t even cut it.

This review is by Patrick Redmond (@paddyrex) one of the organisers of Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub. Photo by the wonderful Simon Brettell.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Round-up w/e 06/05/2012

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away… some bright spark had the idea of doing a weekly round-up for the Birmingham Skeptics and so here I am again scouring the universe for stories from the light and dark sides of  science and scepticism from the week? Did you see what I did there? Of course you did, Friday was Star Wars day and so we’ll kick off with Matthew Cresswell’s views on the growing church of Jedism.

Another thing growing, unfortunately, is the number of cases of measles! If only somebody could find some way of preventing it, like a simple vaccination or something!

But then why stop at measles? There­­­ are lots of other fun diseases to enjoy out there. Pertussis anybody?

Wait, what’s that up in the sky? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It’s Supermoon! Or maybe not.

Interesting developments in the application of technology to visual impairment.

After the recent disastrous election results for the Liberals, NewsThump reports on efforts to save them from extinction.

I’m including this blog post on gender targeted marketing from the Independent for a couple of reasons. For one I enjoyed  it very much and for another it has been written by Nat Guest one of our sitp regulars from way back, who has since moved to London. She has a great blog, recently recommended on Twitter by none other than Dara O’Briain. She is also  one of the organisers of the BBC Question Time Watchalong held at the same venue as the Hackney Skeptics. Basically she’s just great.

This one brings to mind all the old arguments about skepticism denying hope to those that need it, but really, psychics?

Misinterpretation and misinformation about neuroscience covered by the wonderful Dean Burnett of Cardiff Skeptics.

I’ve heard it debated that skeptics should be wary of dishing out logical fallacy slam-downs as a way of winning arguments. I think it’s all to do with delivery really. You have to hand it to Steve Novella though; when he wields the words of power he takes no prisoners.

UFOs are always fun, unless you're having a probe stuck somewhere dark and private. Here’s a nice analysis by Robert Shaeffer of a well-known sighting in the Yukon.

Zombie-ants and monster fleas, what a film that would be! And while we’re talking about movies and giant jumping things (sleek segway eh?), here is a brilliant analysis of the physics behind the jumping power of the Hulk!

Scientific extrapolations of science fiction funnery are all the rage these days. I still wasn’t convinced that this is really the first step to the sonic screw driver but it’s a good article nonetheless.

I've been asked to include something that crosses the skeptic/squirrel interface. Yes I know some odd people. But ever happy to oblige we'll have the Fortean Squirrel debunking some mythconceptions about toilets. and I'd like to introduce you to Robosquirrel.

The next SitP is Robin Ince and it’s a sold-out ticketed event folks. We’ll be opening the doors at 7:00pm, but be warned there are only a few seats so there’s a good chance you’ll be standing. Sorry about that but it’ll be well worth it. If standing for the duration will be difficult then let us know before the night by emailing us and we’ll reserve one for you. You can get us through the Contact page. If some people don’t show and there is space we’ll squeeze a few extra in just before the start but we can’t guarantee how many if any, we’re bound by fire regulations and oxygen capacity I’m afraid.

Right, all that’s left is for me to wish you all the best for the coming week and in the spirit of the upcoming Olympic Games to leave you with this:

This week's round-up was lovingly crafted by Patrick Redmond (@paddyrex) one of the organisers of Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub.